Australia’s strategy for protecting crowded places: will it work?
28 Aug 2017|

On Sunday 20 August as the world was coming to grips with the Barcelona terror attacks, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull unveiled Australia’s first national strategy for protecting crowded places from terrorism. According to the PM, the aim of the strategy, which was apparently developed in consultation with the business community and local councils, is to empower owners and operators of ‘crowded places’ to assess the vulnerability of their locations to terrorists who use ‘basic weapons’ such as vehicles, knives and firearms. The need for such an assessment stems from the government’s expectation that terrorism will remain an enduring threat.

One thing that becomes clear when reading the strategy is how loose the language is, which undermines its usefulness. This begins with the government’s broad definition of ‘crowded places’ as ‘locations which are easily accessible by large numbers of people on a predictable basis’. The strategy makes it clear that the term encompasses both indoor facilities and open spaces, such as parks and pedestrian malls, that tend to be crowded at specific times of the day or night. Under that definition, just about any location could be a ‘crowded place’, and it’s unclear what exactly the government expects the owners and operators of those places to do to ‘protect’ them.

Rather worryingly, the strategy declares, ‘Owners and operators have a responsibility to undertake a risk assessment and/or vulnerability analysis of their crowded place, implement the appropriate mitigations, monitor them for effectiveness (including through audits), and review them at appropriate junctures’ (emphasis added). An immediate question is whether that responsibility is equated with liability: what would happen to a business that didn’t take ‘appropriate’ measures? Business owners and operators are also required to ‘raise awareness of possible security threats among their staff and patrons’. Could a business be held legally responsible for failing to raise awareness? And how are businesses to determine what a heightened level of awareness might entail, and whether it’s useful if it doesn’t include staff training?

The strategy also declares that ‘in many cases, owners and operators will be required to seek further advice from private security professionals’. Such obligations could require a business to spend thousands of dollars consulting with a security company and then pay even more to install whatever preventive measures are recommended. The strategy has a single paragraph on cost, which it links to proportionality. The language used in that section alone is woefully inadequate. It’s littered with conflicting messages, such as noting that security measures can be resource-intensive and costly if not properly managed, while emphasising a need to turn to ‘expert specialist advice’ which is expensive. The government’s advice on how to mitigate cost is to ‘prioritise the highest risk areas of a crowded place’ and make sure that security ‘is incorporated into the design phase of a crowded place’—but, given the loose definition of ‘crowded place’, that could be a one-off sporting event.

In the aftermath of Barcelona, there have been calls for the erection of more bollards to prevent future vehicle-borne terrorist attacks. Such a reaction is understandable, but it may not be practicable. First, we need to decide what we want our cities to represent. The construction of bollards could be seen as another small victory for the other side, because it means we’re adjusting our way of life to address the threats posed by jihadists. Second, installing bollards isn’t cheap. And it often requires redirection of traffic and affects businesses by adding to delivery costs, not to mention making it hard for emergency services to get through when a crisis occurs. Finally, we are surrounded by soft targets and our lives revolve around cars.

Even if we cordon off popular tourist areas or other crowded places, which in major cities are numerous, one must wonder whether that’s likely to actually stop a terror attack, as those who wish to cause us harm may simply change their modus operandi. Terrorists are good at adapting. If they can’t use explosives, they’ll use vehicles, and if that’s not possible they’ll use knives (which they are increasingly using, as seen in Finland and outside Buckingham Palace). This is because the goal of all terrorists is to create fear and widespread panic.

The change in tactics is in part because governments have taken concrete measure to respond to explosive-based or vehicle-borne attacks. From the terrorists’ side, vehicles and knives are a sure-fire way to extract maximum fear because they know that there’s no way that governments can ban the use of cars or knives. They’re also attractive to a group like Islamic State because they’re low-tech: an individual needs no training to use a vehicle or a knife.

The strategy is too thin on detail to be a useful tool. It places a great deal of responsibility on the business community, but it doesn’t explain what help will be given to businesses beyond encouraging them to interact with the Business Advisory Group and ASIO’s Business and Government Liaison Unit.

In reacting to terrorism in the 21st century, it’s imperative that policymakers recognise that their role is not to heighten the sense of insecurity that tends to become pervasive in the wake of a terror attack. To do so only feeds into the terrorists’ dystopic goals. Policymakers must encourage resilience on the part of the public, and not only in ‘crowded places’. They also must recognise that the most effective way to respond to terror attacks is by continuing to address the root causes of political violence, which are often linked to discrimination and a sense of alienation, as well as the corruption of ideas.